5th December 2023 – (Tokyo) Japan is slipping further down the international rankings for spoken proficiency in the English language, with the latest study by a Swiss educational company placing the country behind Malawi and only narrowly ahead of Afghanistan.

That is a poor result for the world’s third-largest economy, say experts, and one that arguably puts Japan’s role in the world and its agenda at risk. The annual survey, by Swiss company EF Education First, measures the English proficiency of people in 113 non-English-speaking places around the world using standardised testing of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. The Netherlands topped the rankings this year with an overall score of 652, followed by Singapore at 647, Austria at 632, Denmark at 631, and Norway at 631.

After Singapore, the highest-ranked place in Asia was the Philippines, in 20th with a score of 594, followed by Malaysia in 25th at 587, Hong Kong in 29th at 580, and South Korea in 49th at 556. China lagged further behind at number 82 with a score of 518. Japan shocked by coming in 87th place this year, with an overall score of just 509. This represents a monumental decline from its 14th place ranking in 2011 when it scored 568, although only 40 nations were surveyed that initial year. Japan’s score has fallen each consecutive year since, plummeting another seven places from 2022 in the latest rankings.

This puts Japan just one spot behind Malawi at 510 and one ahead of Afghanistan at 508, followed by Mexico and 508 and Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar tied at 507 in 90th place. “Adult English proficiency has been waning in East Asia for the past four years and in Japan for an entire decade,” the EF Education First report noted. It described Japan’s precipitous decline in the last 12 months alone as “significant”, suggesting that while pandemic-related travel restrictions likely contributed, “declining English proficiency is likely symptomatic of broader political and demographic shifts” plaguing the country.

Japan’s falling English proficiency spotlights an urgent need for reforms. The nation now ranks behind Malawi and Afghanistan in English ability, an embarrassing deficit with consequences for its global standings. While complex cultural hurdles persist, pragmatic policy changes, educational shifts and private sector programs could significantly boost Japanese English fluency over time.

Admittedly English lacks inherent superiority, and Japan shouldn’t abandon its linguistic heritage. But it has become the world’s common tongue, indispensable for global business, diplomacy and engagement. Japan’s reluctance to master it—even among elites—threatens its international success and partnerships.

Critics highlight its cultural emphasis on avoiding mistakes, which stifles language risk-taking. But pragmatic motivations like career advancement can overcome this. And creative teaching emphasizing conversation over rote grammar mastery allows lower-pressure skill building.

The government should mandate conversational English minimums for school graduation and professional licensing, forcing serious acquisition. Universities can expand language exchange and study abroad. Meanwhile, companies should sponsor immersive residential programs guaranteeing English fluency after months abroad.

Technology like virtual reality conversation practice and visual slide translation during meetings can smooth communication without total fluency. But real engagement requires nuanced discussion. Reading basic English presentations while relying on translators won’t cut it in sophisticated global forums.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and improvement will take sustained efforts but Japan clearly recognizes the problem based on the policy debate. Now concerted action is required, even if initially unpopular. The benefits will compound over generations as English becomes normalized and esteemed rather than shunned.

Critics can’t deny English importance given U.S. dominance and Asia’s rise requiring Japanese leadership. The world won’t wait while Japan drags its feet. Prioritizing broad English training ensures the nation stays competitive and realizes its global potential. The time to overcome insularity is now by investing in this critical skill.

It’s easy to bemoan slow progress. But concerted efforts in schools, universities and businesses can rapidly expand English fluency. Japan should set a bold timeline for universal working proficiency. With smart incentives, flexibility and understanding of cultural factors, this ambitious but essential goal is well within reach.